Modernization Aristide Antonas

We think of modernization while aiming at an infrastructural theory which is perhaps under formation. In recent years, more than ever before, the transition from “traditional” to “modern” societies has been translated into a transformation from “traditional” to “modernized” infrastructures. We cannot consider modernization today without taking account of the parameters that have determined infrastructures over the past decades. By “infrastructures” we no longer mean the simple management of water or electricity networks, or the mere material improvement of transportation. Primarily, infrastructures organize the nature of modernization as infrastructures for a certain traffic of information. Even the management of electricity or water relies—in ways both obvious and tangible—upon the traffic of information; the circulation of vehicles is planned and controlled through information networks. Information has long since determined the infrastructures in the “developed” regions of the planet. We also understand today’s changed modernization process in its relation to globalization: it can be traced while we reflect (in constantly changing terms) on the unprecedented new order that is transforming human communities before our eyes, through the particular expansions of the local as described by Ritzer or through the new order itself, called a “global Empire” by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.1 Even if we see the limits of such a view, we nevertheless understand its narrative power.

The traffic of information is linked to the organized stability of the social element. In the infrastructures of the traffic of information we do not merely find easy access to data that we can know. Knowledge is rarely important in today’s traffic of information. The infrastructures of the traffic of information primarily determine the things we do not need to know, while at the same time it is mainly they that regulate any kind of network. Thus, a theory of infrastructures can directly concern a type of social subconscious.

The last modernization welcomes the abundance of regulatory information in the innermost depths of the social fiber. However, this observation is a far cry from transforming the description of modernization as a mere technical case. We wonder what meanings this specific abundance of information is taking on and what new forms might derive from it. Yet the traffic of information, when it supports a traditional infrastructure, takes place automatically: a small part of the information is controlled by human operators, and that occurs only when something does not develop as expected. The infrastructure interprets and automatically judges the information it is producing. It is a mechanism for the internal consumption of information. The information is classified and assessed, without any external control, and the assessment leads to automatic action: that is the function of the infrastructure. The information does not need to be subjected to external intervention in a rational way, in a way other than the internal, controlled technical assessment that is undertaken immediately by the infrastructure’s operational mechanisms. External intervention is undertaken only to improve the infrastructure or when it suffers an unforeseen malfunction. Then the infrastructure needs to be maintained, improved, and developed—certainly not refuted. The abundance of information decreases the value of the specific information. The infrastructure operates as long as it is determined by large quantities of insignificant information. The different values of the many different data slightly change the regulated operations of each network.

The substantiation of the infrastructure in the traffic of information is what marks modernization today, and does so in such a way that the description of modernization today already provides us with a theory of infrastructure. Besides the internal techniques of material networks, such as that of water, infrastructures organize each community according to its relationship to information on the Internet. The culture of globalization and technological development forms an integrated culture to the degree that it “identifies” with a new concept of a complex infrastructure. Moreover, globalization is sometimes offered as a vision of this homogenization. Many of us are eager for the unification of infrastructures to take place. The nucleus of the social fabric is sought in a certain technical unification of the sphere of infrastructures: a not productive mechanism which stands up to examination in accordance with the infrastructure. Standing and waiting within the time needed for the homogenization to take place is traced into the depths of every “modernization.” The promise of homogenization has an interesting way of concealing conquest strategies that are devised in the new world. And yet we are holding something back when we think of modernization today as the mere predominance of wealthy regions over poorer ones without considering the particular ways in which different kinds of predominance—often absurd ones—are promoted.

A region that is under development is modernized when its infrastructures correspond to the infrastructures of the (albeit temporarily) idealized “developed” region which necessarily functions as a model: modernization is produced as an analogy to something already existing and the processes that describe it are inevitably reduced to the sphere of imitation, adaptation or some kind of colonial attachment to the area of reference. However, as we approach the recent modernizing mechanism, we wonder what the simulation it proposes actually means. In order to broach this question, we must evaluate, before anything else, the function of the infrastructure in the optimum conditions of technological development (which creates the model to be emulated—the desire for the globalization of the infrastructure) and, following that, the idea of the expansion of the infrastructure to the “developing” regions of the planet, an expansion that is determined by the relationship with the model to be emulated.

Let us examine an example of the infrastructure of an ordinary modern city using a text as our vehicle. More or less consciously, the text below is talking about “any modernized city on the planet”—perhaps about the city par excellence of the “homogenized world”—while at the same time it is talking in particular about Paris. Let us take a look at the control room of the city’s water system as described by Bruno Latour.2 The author asks himself:

“Is it water that flows through this immense control panel on which different colored lights correspond to altitudes? Of course not, it is signals sent by sensors connected to the sluices—other paper slips, assembled by decentralized computers to which the most local regulations have been delegated by software. In addition to the flow of water in the pipes, we need the circulation of signs in wire networks. Water leakages must be avoided; data leakages must be mopped up. A neighborhood of Paris can be drowned; or we can drown in data. Incidents that could break the pipes must be avoided; or shots that would overwhelm the operators, on the watch around the clock, hands on the controls. The operators claim that this huge synoptic table helps to distribute water in Paris just as the instrument panel helps to pilot a Formula One racing car. For sure, it is a matter not only of information sent up, but also of orders sent down, down to the sluices themselves constantly regulating the dense network of over 18,000 kilometers of pipe work. Although every drop of water spends an average of six hours in their system before being consumed, in the operators’ eyes (or rather, at the extremity of their joy sticks) the fluid behaves like a solid: it reacts immediately, so that they physically feel the vibrations under their bodies of the multitude of flows, and are able to anticipate the orders to give, in a flash, eyes riveted to the feedback from the water towers, reservoirs and exchangers.”

Latour’s text vividly describes the interrelation between the traffic of data and the traffic of water. It points out the precedence of the dematerialized structure. That the function of the traffic of data is “independent” of whatever is orchestrated by the infrastructure reveals a certain supremacy of administrative information over its material actions. The water network is based on active archives and is organized by mechanisms that produce these archives. Latour records a connection between archival stratifications that are attacking each other but display interrelations and nodal coincidences: the city is typified by these. The archival strata are interdependent and control each other in the particular way of infrastructures.

The city’s structure and infrastructure are presented together in this text, as if infrastructure had prevailed over any possible form of structure. The infrastructure is also “identified” with its system of operation that has been installed in the a-topic mechanism that regulates it. Where the flow of information of the live archive of the infrastructure is taking place, a particular nonplace emerges, which is obligatorily dominant, made out of countless representations and, at the same time, lacking representation: this nonplace consists of invisible, hidden regulatory mechanisms of “living” archives. The modern-day situation itself, to which modernism aspires, is dominated by this absence—i.e., it has surrendered to infrastructural mechanisms and has been conquered by them, since these mechanisms are becoming increasingly stronger. This slightly distorted reading of Latour (oriented toward the concept of the infrastructure) leads certain observations on the “metropolis” to the thought of “modernizing regions which are under development.” The “actual” action of the network is presented here as being constructed by the logic of an active archival mechanism; thus, the infrastructure has lost, from the outset, its epiphenomenon, the space that the infrastructure organized above itself. Infrastructure and ultrastructure coincide in the city that Latour describes. The image of the contemporary city is made by its disappearance; reality is made by the absence of the epiphenomenon; and “natural” space is organized through disappearances inside active archives of the traffic of information.

It is within the environment of the infrastructure which has been regulated outside space and which constitutes the contemporary that Latour also traces the lost subject that resides in the active stratification of dissecting archival strata:

Ego, hic, nunc—identity, place, time—this is probably the most unsure starting point for an exploration of the social. Ego: identity cards, records of civil status, testimonies by neighbors; hic: cadastral plans, maps of Paris, guidebooks, signposts; nunc: sundials, watches, the electronic voice of the speaking clock. These are the things that make it possible to change the empty form of deictics. But that which fills, which points to, by means of the forefinger, the needle, the arrow, the nail, the number, the name, the form or the stamp, has none of the characteristics of a society in which we have a role, a place, and a time.”

Within the infrastructure a person is no longer acknowledged as a person. And what about the community? If cities were its hosts par excellence, does the community now belong somewhere? Cities were the best place for the development and aggrandizement of infrastructures but it is no longer certain that the extreme, evolved infrastructure is the best background for the development of a city. Within the sphere of infrastructures, the concept of the “city” is under reexamination.

In a way, infrastructures are being called upon—perhaps for the first time in human history—to take on the content itself of social life. The public sphere is organized as an infrastructure. The same regulatory, active archival space that controls a certain material infrastructure, such as that of water, communicates with the space in which encounters between individuals take place or where the news about what is going on circulates. The communication between the archival spaces of information is not coincidental. The sphere of infrastructures lends the characteristics of its technical operation to the public sphere.

Sociability enters the sphere of the infrastructure while society tends to organize an unforeseen social event as if it were a small, transitory, epiphenomenal fact: a mere fault in the extended field of the infrastructure. What traditionally constituted the conception of sociability is now presented as a small malfunction of the infrastructure, since, for whatever reason, it does not also form part—in any way—of its mechanism.

The infrastructure operates through the stratification of intelligent archives that undertake its operational activity. The active management framework of archival entries in the infrastructure becomes stronger than any of its isolated actions. Events in the infrastructure are important within their framework. The framework has already begun to organize its actions from the moment they are undertaken, since—from the outset—it registers them, in a specific way, on itself. Tomorrow’s policies would have to be decided by constituting the framework of the active archive for the traffic of information. The infrastructural frameworks are reduced to the acceptance of given platforms of the increasingly ballooning sphere of infrastructures.

Through such a view, the user of the Internet is also entered in the unified infrastructure as a particular individual. The Internet is the carrier of the unification of infrastructures and at the same time the exemplarily populated infrastructure: the commonplace space of the operation of the Internet describes the desired access offered by any type of modernization to a certain developing region where people can reside; its region hides inhospitable places and a number of invisible restrictions: search engines, receiving results with escalated accessibility, the prohibitions that the Internet constructs, the passages through which different things are linked, the entrance codes into one or another archival space, the things that appear without us summoning them, the local disabilities of the various networks, the exclusions and discriminations, the security mechanisms and restrictions. Defining mechanisms that do not appear, since they occur in illegible codes, form the kinds of platforms of this lived archive and a new space of action or inertia. The things that are hidden during the operation of the Internet render it an infrastructure but we have yet to see what will happen when human communal time and technical/processing time are manufactured in the interior of this same infrastructure. The Internet/skeleton of recent modernization can be described simultaneously as a binding format and as a limitless rejection of a format, as a place of incarceration and as a place of offers: as being enclosed in an infinite opening, in the plethora of incompatible or relative entries.

That which seems the most perverse in the concept of modernization today is the relationship between the unified sphere of infrastructures and subjugation. Subjugation does not begin as the subjugation of the poor by the rich: since subjugation in the sphere of the infrastructure is voluntary, the communal epiphenomenon of the developed region is the first to voluntarily become a part of it. The developed region is the first to be cut into pieces and articulated by active, mutually complementary archives. Its citizens belong to and also choose a conscious world of representation, the interior of an archive, where they can “act” and move “freely.” In the condition of the unified infrastructure, the world ceases to have any special meaning outside the infrastructure’s archive. Conversely, every regulative function of every community (that is served by the infrastructure) is formulated in the interior of the archivally constituted infrastructure, and every possible meaning (related or “unrelated” to the infrastructure) is entered in the interior of the same infrastructure too. The infrastructure becomes a kind of acting, independent “collective” subject which is made up of the sum/archive of all possible operations and communities.

Modernization as the subjugation of the developing regions in given representation platforms (already offered by the formed infrastructures) promotes a strange, singular imitation: without proclaiming it, it requests the internal change of the structure of the communal element of the developing regions which will be necessarily organized in the same way or better: within the same space. The development does not take place as an analogy to the model but through a certain controlled plug in it. Man within the framework is introduced into the special world of an international, pleasant hypnotism. Infrastructure is the name of a certain kind of hypnotism. The hypnotistic basis is the first point at issue for an infrastructure. And yet it would be naive for one to directly denounce the structure of hypnotism, when it automates technical solutions and offers desirable residences in selected representations.

The infrastructure works toward hypnotic repetition and at the same time asks, by hypothesis, to be forgotten. It seeks oblivion and constructs some kind of oblivion: if it does not function as something which— while functioning—is forgotten, it is not called infrastructure. The temporal constitution of the infrastructure (even the primary, traditional infrastructure) takes place as the hypnotic, repetitive deletion of more and more assumed actions: the infrastructures are organized while they promote a certain invalidation of their presence.

Hypnotic repetition and oblivion out of habit describe, from the time of early modernism, the banal behavior against which art rose up as a poetic, alternative possibility. Viktor Shklovsky’s3 emblematic text, “Art as Technique,” written in 1925, “renounces” oblivion out of habit as that everyday element that we should have been suspicious of. The confinements/pinning down of everyday life showed the space where art was active. That was often how we also perceived political action in the 20th century.

A theory of infrastructures that would describe the dynamics of modernizations would not judge political issues in economic terms alone. Infrastructure no longer defines mere prosaicism: it is itself a particular aesthetic commodity. The extremely polarizing reading of the public and private contemporary space by Richard Sennett (The Fall of Public Man),4 which describes with animosity the end of the city as a field of politics, also nervously describes the unified infrastructure (without naming it) as a tradition in degraded banality and in a certain mournful oblivion. Thus, Sennett remains a modernist: he is repulsed by the everyday quality of the familiar, ballooning infrastructures. He refuses to consider the transformation of the political in the new condition. We read his book as a curse upon contemporary “familiarity,” while it is a fact that the aggrandizement of the infrastructure and the continuous residence in its interior renders sociability a certain “homecoming.” But in this condition neither a curse nor an effort to return to the previous paradigm will have the significance of the first awakening that historical modernism so persistently demanded.

The plans of modernizations are promoted through the simultaneous shift of the colonialist mechanism from the obvious restriction that took place in territorially organized communities to new kinds of restrictions that concern individuals or wholes that are lined up in the forgotten but omnipresent public sphere of infrastructures. Modernizations today do not uniformly conquer the inhabitants of a “developing” region but integrate (rather than subjugate) each citizen into that which he or she considers to be his or her space. The most sophisticated modernizations nowadays request the citizen’s subordination to that which the citizen him- or herself seeks. Thus, they emerge as the voluntary surrender of each individual to the particular space of his or her desires. The “construction of an individual as a conjunction of choices” and the “construction of a community as the accumulation of individuals” are the mechanisms that describe the habitation of the Internet’s infrastructures today. The infrastructure takes shape as a new kind of familiar international oblivion and locality as its hosting refusal: two poles organized (on the one hand) through the constituent—increasingly unified—active archive of infrastructures and (on the other) through the present-day desire for modernization. Through every prospect of modernization, localities are perceived as accidents. The regions that are modernized are presented as injured. The particular resistance of the local element in the region under modernization appeared as a conjunction of the archives’ failure to organize in interrelated, active, mutually supportive stratifications. The rapid integration into the sphere of infrastructures presents the developing regions as a-topic commonplace regions that are already participating in the “limitless” culture of the sphere of infrastructures.

The mandatory binding to the material restrictions of older infrastructures or material archives of each place are faults that organize old localities according to this late modernization. Latour’s image of the invisible city/infrastructure that we hurriedly visited provides an aggressive, absorptive format: inescapable, since no resistance strategy seems viable outside the sphere of infrastructures. At the same time, the conception of the invisible mechanism of contemporary infrastructures seems to allow the promise for a possible, impending, new sociability.

Thus, on the one hand we recognize in Latour’s text the banality of Paris as any city that has surrendered to the sphere of infrastructures, while on the other we read this surrender as the accession to an expansionist model that transforms the technical networks but also organizes, in another way, the societies and identities of the citizens of the planet: the expansion of this sphere of infrastructures partly invalidates the city as a community and takes up, with political methodicality, more and more “space.” Swiftly and steadily, without presenting alternatives, the sphere of infrastructures constructs the unified global strategy of simulation and voluntary abolition of the city by the citizens. The alternative of the modernized region in order to preserve its local definition is to preserve the bad management, poverty or—in many cases—the disabilities that are caused by its conflicts. Local particularities originate in another—past—era: traditional political issues are shaped violently as contemporary archaeological findings. In a way, the regions that are under modernization provide the image of a world in ruins, which is a world still constituted with no conscience of representationism. The regions that are under modernization are reminiscent of an archaeological museum that presents “reality” while we thought it was “itself.” Undertaking traditional political actions in a new different environment seems anachronistic from the outset.

The rift between the infrastructure and the actions that occur outside it grows in the form of a chasm between the familiarity of the infrastructure and its unfamiliar, uncontrollable aspect, in the regions of advanced contemporary capitalism. It also gapes between the infrastructure and the exoticism of locality, territoriality and the particularity of developing regions. Modernization today is characterized by the triumphant sphere of infrastructures: uncoordinated actions are already being organized opposite it, while in its interior the concept of confronting the “one opposite” continues to be eroded: otherness is registered in the inner geographies of the sphere of infrastructures. Here is sociability without danger, with—internally—limited possibilities of catastrophes, breakdowns, collapses, discontinuities. The unification and the interrelation of the active archives of the infrastructure simultaneously provides a guarantee of the expansion of a culture that has “no city,” “no place,” and the only possibility of a region to converse, in “contemporary terms” and “security,” with the global environment.

If we accept that we are sharing a sample of the unified culture of the greatest infrastructure ever constructed, what is left (in order to evaluate the last modernization) is the running through of those that remain to be safeguarded outside this infrastructure, those that do not fit inside it as well as the alternative meanings that coordination with the infrastructure may take on. Modernization, to which we turn our attention, is just behind and still ahead of us: neither to be rejected nor salutary. It starts off with theories of exclusions (since from the outset it appears negotiating the terms of its entrance into inaccessible spaces) but it also promises social spaces to be laid claim to. The exclusions of an operational mechanism, a state, a community or an individual from the promised infrastructure all mean different things. For each one of them—through the same process of aggrandizement of the sphere of infrastructures—different transformations have taken place in recent years. The questions for each one of these remain open as long as new roles do not take shape in an expected way within the infrastructure. The modernized social mechanism would come close to ecumenical modernization if its social vision were immediately translated into “pure” infrastructure—if it succeeded in doing away with the logic of any “external” social “event” and if it developed as a simple platform for the unfolding of facts always already archived within infrastructures. Modernization would thus work toward a certain containment or a certain destruction of the “event” within prescribed platforms. Within the modernized sphere of infrastructures the event is not that which we tried, until recently, to define as an event. If we can talk about an infrastructure of events, we would also begin to describe the same modernization in another way. Infrastructure is put forth here simultaneously as a mechanism of revoking the event or the definition of the event within its particular framework.

The steps of the last modernization are the same with the ones that ensue: they promote the transformation of the technical equipment and a certain similar transformation of human communities into a fragmented but unified sphere. This happens along with mandatory changes to the concepts of identity, of the individual and of his or her responsibility. Modernization is like a plug in an already organized technical network, strictly significated, in which every new region that is connected to it follows its developments, while at the same time it follows a simplistic and shallow communal system, structured on platforms. Adapting to restrictions, the “developing” and developed regions of the planet are given over to something invisible but which is, in many of its parts, controllable and organized. The idealization that considers this particular formation to be a “self-regulating system” hides the external interventions that sometimes define its structures. The infrastructure does not reveal something which we should have paid attention to but forgot. On the contrary, in the case in question, what is left out of the infrastructure already shows, in a narrative way, the idiosyncratic “written oblivion” of the infrastructure “itself” as if it were unified discourse—it talks about the infrastructure instead of keeping silent about it. Some data are needed for a water system to function for a city and the flow of data will rarely be interesting in any sense. But can a community function in predefined platforms in a similar way? The discourse of the “written oblivion” of the infrastructure is the discourse for modernization. Besides being a mere controlling mechanism of any transported material or a complex of peaceful and boring routine, the network repels and idealizes rifts in regions outside the infrastructure or in its inner crevices. These forgotten regions are the space of conscience of the sphere of infrastructures. A metapolitical element is already being organized in those forgotten regions. Modernization and the sphere of its infrastructures prepared paradigm shifts for many regions of the human thought that surrenders to them. But the project of modernization today is already hastily transforming the world outside the infrastructure into an imaginary world of the past.


1 / Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Empire, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2000.

2 / Bruno Latour, Emilie Hermant, Paris: Invisible City, La Découverte-Les Empêcheurs de penser en rond, Paris 1998, (accessed January 15, 2009).

3 / Viktor Šklovsky, “Art as Technique,” Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, ed. Lee T. Lemon, Marion J. Reiss, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln 1965, p. 3–24.

4 / Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1976.